Are Unpaid Internships Mere Exploitation?

By Eric Reed

NEW YORK (MainStreet)--The data is in on unpaid internships, and with pretty nasty results. The practice broke into the headlines a little over a year ago with a set of labor suits against Fox Entertainment and Gawker Media filed by former interns alleging that they were owed back pay for what amounted to menial positions. Since then the critics have piled on, painting a picture of exploitation and abuse by companies simply looking to hire de facto entry level employees while saving a quick buck.

The standard, in fact, does seem fairly damning. According to Department of Labor guidelines, an internship can only qualify for work without pay if it meets several fairly rigorous standards. These include training similar to an educational environment, not displacing any other employees and "that the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded."

So how many interns honestly do work that's of no value to their employer? Sorting mail might not be glamorous, but if the intern doesn't do it someone who's getting paid will.

According to data, there isn't even a pot of gold at the end of this rather shabby rainbow. Recent studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) suggest that students who take on unpaid internships do no better on the job market than those who had no internship at all, and considerably worse than those who got paid.

The data seems conclusive and the result seems not only inevitable but also intuitive; even college students deserve to make their rent. Yet data that seems conclusive on the surface can mean something very different once you start to pick it apart, just as it does here.

It's a problem of missing the trees for the forest or, in other words, deciding that because some of the picture looks bad, all of it must be. According to Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, condemning unpaid internships altogether misses the real point.

"There's different reasons that students get involved with unpaid internships," Gardner said. "If they're good internships, whether they're paid or unpaid, if they're designed well and its working for the student and employer, then both sides gain from it."